A splattering of gorgeous tropical islands nestled between the lands of Puerto Rico and the British Virgin Islands, the USVI have long been famed for their silky-white beaches and wild inland hills of rainforest, cacti groves and banyans.
But this little enclave of America in the heart of the Caribbean chains is much more than just your usual honeymoon hub.
It’s also steeped in an enthralling history that tells tales of British colonists, Dutch sugarcane tycoons, European power struggles and – perhaps best of all – pirates.
Yep, Blackbeard himself is thought to have sailed this way, while old castles and plantations still loom on the hillsides, complete with slave quarters and cannon batteries and more.
Travelers who come here (and there are plenty of them) are in for a medley of beach lazing and snorkelling, scuba diving and turtle spotting, all doused in a (not so) healthy pouring of local rum!
Let’s explore the best things to do in the US Virgin Islands:
1. Shiver me’ timbers at Blackbeard’s Castle
It may come as something of a surprise that the eponymous Blackbeard’s Castle might never have even been used by the infamous pirate Blackbeard.
It was named for the island legend that says the great outlaw once docked up at Charlotte Amalie and used the crumbling Danish keep as a place from which to spot potential pillaging targets out at sea!
And even if you don’t believe the story, this aged tower on the hillsides of upper St. Johns remains a great day out in the USVI, with regular tours of the surrounding Skytsborg Historic Park, adjoining exhibits related to pirating in the Caribbean Seas, and even a poolside bar on offer to visitors.
2. Walk through history on Hassel Island
A small squiggle of land that sits in the harbour mouth of St. Thomas, Hassel Island is one of the most historically imbued spots in the entire United States Virgin Islands.
First, it was fortified by the Danish masters of Charlotte Amalie, who raised small turrets to protect the flow of vessels moving in and out of the port.
Then the British came and built the likes of Fort Willoughby to fend off their French adversaries in the 1800s, and later the US corps used it during the world wars.
Today, visitors can come across on boats from the capital and wander between the old garrison houses and gun batteries, sampling all the rich military histories that meet on the USVI.
3. Wake up on the edge of Cinnamon Bay
One of the few paradisiacal Caribbean beaches with a campsite just on its edge, Cinnamon Bay is every inch the tropical stretch of sand you’d expect to find in the midst of the beautiful Virgin Islands National Park.
The undisputed seaside jewel of St. John island, it boasts sloping talcum sands and a virtually untouched backdrop of rainforest-clad mountains, sheer cliffs and verdant blooms of mangrove and orchid.
Visitors can opt to pitch their tent between the palm groves or close to the beach, while others will choose one of the stripped-down beach cottages, with trade wind-kissed terraces just meters from the shore!
4. Go wild at the Coral World Ocean Park
Alive with rare sea turtles and sea lions, blooming coral plants in a kaleidoscope of different colours and scuttling hermit crabs, the Coral World Ocean Park sits on the headlands that jut out to meet Thatch Cay from the eastern shores of St. Thomas.
Top attractions at the site include Stingray Lagoon and the Shark Shallows, which allow visitors an up-close glimpse of two of the Caribbean’s greatest underwater creatures.
The al fresco pools are all fed by a current of sea water that gushes in from the ocean, giving the place a more natural edge over other aquariums around the globe.
5. Go underwater at the Buck Island National Wildlife Refuge
Possibly the single best place to don the snorkelling or SCUBA gear and head underwater in the entire United States Virgin Island archipelago, the Buck Island National Wildlife Refuge is home to both the uber-rare hawksbill turtle and the uber-rare leatherback.
And that’s not it.
There are coral-crusted shipwrecks here too, along with oodles of fascinating migratory bird species for company, and blooming coral gardens to wow the eyes.
Shaped like a boomerang, and adrift in the Carib waters south of St. John, the spot can be easily accessed on packages out of Charlotte Amalie.
6. Laze around on Trunk Bay
With everything from National Geographic Society Best Beach awards to Condé Nast prizes for prettiness, Trunk Bay’s accolades have come thick and fast over the years.
But boy are they deserved! A tiny stretch of cotton-white sand that was once the property of a certain Rockefeller no less, the spot weaves around the green hills of St. John, forming one of the undisputed jewels of the Virgin Islands National Park.
It’s backed by the crumbling ruins of an historic plantation, and fronted with a peppering of rugged islands that make for some top-notch days of snorkelling in the shallows!
7. Understand the sugar legacy at the Estate Whim Plantation Museum
Covering 12 acres of land on the largest and southernmost of the USVIs – St. Croix – this historic plantation offers travelers a glimpse at the historic industry that once dominated the entire Caribbean region: sugarcane production.
The Estate Whim Plantation was built sometime in the 1700s by the Dutch West India Company, and represented the largest of its kind on the archipelago.
After centuries of dilapidation it was bought by the US government and restored to mimic its former looks, with real-stone walls and pruned gardens.
Today, visitors can come and see the original slave quarters, the grand Great House at the plantation’s heart, and tour the factory complexes to boot.
8. Taste the tipples of the Cruzan Rum Distillery
Anyone pining for a shot of the Caribbean’s most famous alcoholic export should be sure to make a beeline for the island of St. Croix, where the welcoming Cruzan Rum Distillery stands on the fringes of Frederiksted.
Tours of the complex mean delving into the long history of rum production on the islands, and visitors get to walk through the brewing rooms and distilling houses, where towers of timber barrels of charcoal wood loom in stacks of seven or eight overhead.
The smells of broiling sugarcane are in the nostrils, while the visit wraps up with a sampling of the various Cruzan flavours, going from sharp lemon and lime rum to banana-infused rum.
9. Shop around Vendors Plaza
Appropriately-named Vendors Plaza is the go to spot for a little bit of classic island souvenir shopping on St. Thomas.
Each day it comes alive with a clutch of local market sellers, with everything from handmade shell jewellery to leather bags, gimmicky reggae-inspired t-shirts to novelty island hats (think about getting the pirate one if you’re really getting in the Blackbeard mood!) on the menu.
But it’s not just stuff that’s on sale: it’s food too.
There are a couple of really tasty stalls touting island specialities, like saltfish dishes and okra cornmeal mashups, not to mention the odd place to grab an ice-cream to cool off under the sun!
10. Have a round at the Mahogany Run Golf Course
Designed in the 1980s by the acclaimed course creators George & Tom Fazio, Mahogany Run is the top place for a round on the United States Virgin Islands.
It can be found cascading down the green, green hills on the northern fringes of St. John Island, abutting the cliffs that drop down into the Caribbean Sea.
That means some fine views of the ocean from the fairways, while pelicans and mongooses, kestrels and iguanas roam the rough.
There are two spots for refreshment on-site: the casual Coconuts Snack Shack for laid-back drinks in the salty breeze, and The Grille, with its refined array of steaks and Carib seafood.
11. Tour the red walls of Fort Frederik
Glowing in hues of blood-red just meters from the coast on St. Croix, this gorgeous fortress complex is one of the most striking reminders of the Danish and Norwegian influences in the United States Virgin Islands.
Registered as a National Landmark, the bulwarks and palisades here were raised to solidify Scandinavian rule in the archipelago, and later played an important role in fending off the marauding pirate bands of the Caribbean Sea.
Some of the most awesome points of interest within include the colossal cannons in the Cannon Battery, the red-painted Commanders Quarters and the beautiful palm-dotted gardens.
12. Enjoy the views from Drake’s Seat
Aloft above the mirror-like waters of Magen’s Bay, where the scrub woods of St. Thomas Island give way to a small lookout atop the cliffs, visitors can settle down on a humble green chair and take in arguably some of the most breathtaking panoramas in the entire USVI. The spot is known as Drake’s Seat, and is named after the English naval commander Francis Drake, who is thought to have once moored in the waters below.
View wise, you can expect the green-topped undulations of St. Thomas to continue out to the east, before Thatch Cay pops up from the sea, and then wild St. John marks the horizon.
It’s all very beautiful!
13. Get a taste of the rainforest at the St. George Village Botanical Garden
Amidst the swaying tamarind and fig trees, the jungle vines and the waxy blooms of orchids that line the various pathways weaving through the St. George Village Botanical Garden on the island of St. Croix, there are plenty of opportunities to get a real feel for the wild character of the USVI. There are literally thousands of different species of plant adorning the grounds, all of which spring up from between the ruins of an historic plantation.
They aim to recreate the various climactic zones and habitats of the islands, with the likes of blooming ferns next to spiny cacti and aloe plants.
14. Explore the Carambola Tide Pools
Disconnected from the more trodden coastal spots on St. Croix, the Carambola Tide Pools can only be reached with an arduous hike over the rugged rocks and promontories that erupt north of Annaly.
The going is tough and precarious, so first-timers are encouraged to get a guide for the journey.
The aim? A series of seaside pools, which are carved out of the coastline in a medley of plunge pools and curious rock ponds.
Daring travelers can often be seen taking a dip in the waters, showering in the salt-spray as the waves crash over the headlands and into the protected lagoons beyond!
15. Kick-back at Dinghy’s Beach Bar and Grill
Spilling onto the sands of the iconic Honeymoon Beach of St. John, Dinghy’s Beach Bar and Grill is the prime place to unwind with a cocktail and a sunset after a day’s lazing on the sands of the Virgin Islands National Park.
Casual and laid-back in the extreme, the joint can be found lurking in a small little beach cart painted in typical Carib colours of turquoise green and blue.
The menu offers up all the usual jerk chicken and crusted fish cuts, while there are swinging hammocks and plenty of shaded sandy spots to enjoy it all in.